March 23, 2017

Bigger Than the Game: Bo, Boz, The Punky QB and How the ’80s Created the Modern Athlete

September 17, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

In a span of 366 days, four players changed the landscape of sports as we know it.

Without the use of a hot tub time machine, author Michael Weinreb takes us back to 1986 in Bigger Than the Game: Bo, Boz, The Punky QB and How the ’80s Created the Modern Athlete, a remarkable study on how sports permanently applied a vise grip on American pop culture while sowing the seeds for the likes of Deion Sanders, Shaquille O’Neal and Andre Aggasi to help redefine the role of athlete.

Weinreb puts his focus on three larger-than-life characters:

  • Bo Jackson, the mercurial dual-sport athlete and winner of the 1985 Heisman Trophy, as the Auburn legend — 24 years (and with less fanfare) before LeBron James — tussles with “The Decision” to pursue either a professional football career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or apply his prodigious skills with baseball’s Kansas City Royals.
  • University of Oklahoma linebacker Brian Bosworth, a human hitting machine whose defiance of authority and sudden rise to fame results in a persona known as “The Boz,” one which slowly and methodically swallows his soul and blurs myth and reality.
  • Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, whose lust for life and penchant for disdaining traditional values becomes to personify the “Me” decade, while becoming the emotional leader for a legendary team whose rise to dynasty status is highlighted (and then destroyed) by a perfect storm of greed, dissent and an all-out dash to cash in on instant fame.

Through these three, Weinreb begins the journey of how college and professional sports collided head-on into a maelstrom of factors that took both towards the path sports currently resides in. It is in these 366 days (January 1, 1986 to January 2, 1987) that the modern athlete evolves from the Frank Merriwell-like figure that was the image of a young Ronald Reagan (the President of the United States that fateful year) to one that was driven by circumstances far beyond the final score.

Weinreb also guides the reader through dark, steamy morass that was the life of Maryland basketball star Len Bias, the “can’t miss” All-America forward who the public perceived as a God-fearing, fun-loving man with the world in front of him, but who led another tragic life that would make him Ground Zero on the nation’s war against drugs.

Bias’ sudden death that June 19, two days after being drafted by the defending world champion Boston Celtics, will resonate with those who remember the stunning, surreal first hours upon hearing the news, and introduce others to a man whose mother, Lonise, knew would not live to see his dreams come true, as she vividly talks about the premonitions she had about her son’s fate in the days and months leading to how “the repercussions of the modern age would wither away a dynasty” that would take another 22 years to achieve another title.

Perhaps the hidden gem of Weinreb’s journey is how ESPN — still in its developing stages — and Nike (which was losing a shoe war with Reebok and was reeling from the broken foot of second-year pro Michael Jordan), took advantage of the climate and the four central characters in the book.

It was in 1986 that ESPN catapulted into the mainstream with its flashy highlight packages and the nicknames from the mind of a young Chris Berman to its monumental deal with the National Football League that made them a heavy hitter in the still-blossoming cable television industry, while Nike adman Jim Riswold’s trip to a Rob Lowe movie helped inspire the ground-breaking Jordan-Spike Lee commercial that transformed both into icons.

For anyone who lived through that year, the book is a look back and a reminder to what sports once was. For better or worse, the events of 1986 still have far-reaching ramifications on how we perceive sports and the men and women who play them.

Since 1990, Brandon has been in sports media in a variety of roles, including sports editor of The Galveston County (TX) Daily News and general assignments/sports for the Houston Chronicle. His work has also appeared on foxsports.com, sportingnews.com and footballoutsiders.com. He co-authored the 2004 edition of the Pro Football Forecast along with Sean Lahman and Todd Grenier. He also worked as a transmissions administrator for Fox Sports Net.  You can follow Brandon on Facebook and Twitter (BCWilliams71).

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